For longer than cultures can report, jewelry has served a symbolic purpose in human history. From a beaded ceremonial piece in a remote village to the jewel-encrusted crown of an emperor in the capital city, jewelry tells us who’s in charge. And from the unique engagement rings around the world to the signet rings of history’s leaders, jewelry tells us who’s connected.
We can learn a lot about culture and history just by looking at jewelry, and that’s been true for thousands of years. Here, we’ll explore seven of the most fabulous and most expensive pieces of jewelry in the world today, and we’ll check out some of the history behind each piece.
The Hope Diamond
The Hope Diamond is counted among one of the most impressive gemstones in the history of the world. It was mined in Andhra Pradesh, India, where boron in the surrounding hills gave the diamond a blue hue. The Hope Diamond has a long and storied past since it was first purchased in 1666 by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. Then, it was cut and renamed “The French Blue” before it was sold to King Louis XIV, the French king best known for his extravagance and flamboyant style.
However, the gem was stolen from the king in 1791 before resurfacing in the possession of the Hope family in London almost fifty years later. Nowadays, the Hope Diamond is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
While there are many stories of curses surrounding the Hope Diamond, none of them can be verified. Most historians believe that these stories were meant to increase the mystery surrounding the stone in an effort to drive up its popularity and value.
The Star of Asia
This is one of the largest and most pristine examples of a star sapphire, and it was found in present-day Myanmar in the depths of the ancient Mogok mine. It checks in at 330 carats, and the six-legged star in its center is its crowning characteristic.
This jewel is believed to have been one of the crown jewels of the Maharajah of Jodhpur in India, also called the Kingdom of Marwar. The history of the crown and kingdom stretches all the way back to the 8th century, though the exact date of the jewel’s original discovery is unclear. Nowadays, this priceless jewel has been taken far from its home and is on display in the Smithsonian.
Harry Winston’s Gulf Pearl Parure
This set of fine pearl jewelry includes a necklace, a bracelet, earrings, and a ring, all made with some of the finest natural saltwater pearls the world has ever seen. In total, this intricate pearl set includes 193 pearls and 166 diamonds spread throughout the multiple pieces that comprise the parure. The necklace and bracelet are designed in a row pattern, where the pearls and diamonds are arranged to give the impression that the wearing is literally dripping with these riches. Interestingly, Harry Winston inscribed each piece with a pseudonym, “Jacques Timey,” rather than signing his real name.
The name of the parure, “Gulf Pearl,” takes its name from the origin of the pearls. Before oil became the main export of the Gulf Region, pearls were a hot commodity. The Persian Gulf was a treasure trove of natural saltwater pearls, and the region surrounding the Gulf still boasts a long and storied tradition of deep-sea pearl diving.
Grace Kelly’s Engagement Ring
The 1955 Cannes Film Festival was the beginning of a shift in the history of engagement rings, when actress Grace Kelly met the man who would become her husband: Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Their love story read like a film script, and the engagement ring was also right off the screen.
Prince Rainier proposed to Grace Kelly with a pair of rings: an eternity band set with diamonds and rubies, made by Cartier. But he also got her a second engagement ring, this one with a prominent emerald-cut diamond.
This diamond ring appeared alongside Kelly in the movie “High Society,” making it one of the first pieces of jewelry featured on the silver screen, and having a real impact on the top jewelry trends of the time. It remains part of the iconic style that Grace Kelly inspired in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Graff Pink
The Graff Pink gets its name from its owner, Laurence Graff, who bought this 24.78 carat, intense pink diamond at an auction in 2010 for a whopping $46 million. At the time, it was the most expensive single jewel ever sold at auction, at more than $10 million above its estimated sale price. It’s high pink color and size puts it in the top 2 percent of diamonds in the world.
We don’t know much about the early history of the Graff Pink, but it did belong to Harry Winston until the 1950s, when it was sold to an unknown private collector. Throughout that whole period, the stone didn’t even have a name. Now, this emerald-cut diamond serves as the centerpiece for a magnificent ring; the setting is platinum with two shield-shaped diamonds on either side. This ring has continued to help set the trend for colored diamond designs for the past several decades.
The “Doubly Fortunate” Necklace
The “Doubly Fortunate” necklace is so named because the Jadeite stones that comprise this piece are all nearly the same shade of green, and finding this much of the mineral with the same hue was certainly extraordinary. The second fortunate factor of the Jadeite in this necklace is the fact that it is of such a high quality, which is discerned by its translucence. Jadeite is one of the most rare and expensive stones in the world, which makes the wearer of this necklace a lucky person indeed!
The necklace also features diamond stops between the Jadeite beads, and a diamond clasp. The necklace was featured on the front of Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue, and drew a large number of potential buyers to the auction where it was sold for nearly $8 million.
Wallis Simpson’s Cartier Panther Bracelet
This bracelet was originally a gift from Edward, the almost-King of England and Duke of Windsor who abdicated the throne to spend his life with Wallis Simpson, the love of his life. Edward gave Wallis plenty of jewelry throughout their lifetime, but one that stands out is the Cartier Panther bracelet that he gave her in 1952.
The bracelet is covered in diamonds and features two clear emeralds for the eyes, along with onyx details along the body. The most unique part of the design, however, is the linked structure of the bracelet, which allows it to drape gracefully on any wrist, rather than sitting stiff like a bangle. Sotheby’s even highlighted the bracelet’s “stalking attitude” when the piece went up for auction recently, which is certainly achieved with the sleek and ingenious design.
Of course, these seven examples barely scrape the surface of the importance of jewelry throughout the ages, but they offer a nice overview of how important jewelry is when it comes to shaping our culture and our history.